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Safe But Sorry

  • Jonathan Adler
  • In June, European environmental activists dressed as butterflies protested the possible sale of genetically modified crops. A scientific report had suggested that pollen from such corn could harm caterpillars. Friends of the Earth and Defenders of Wildlife have written President Clinton calling for a ban on so-called “killer corn.” A broad coalition of environmental groups, including Greenpeace, has proposed an international moratorium on the use of all crops that have been changed by the addition of genes from other species or by the manipulation of DNA. The ban would be lifted when an international “biosafety protocol” is negotiated.

    Calls for tight controls on what some have dubbed “Frankenfoods” are the newest application of the “precautionary principle.” This is the idea that we are “better safe than sorry” and thus new technologies should be used only under strict governmental controls (and perhaps even banned) until they are proven safe.

    While the precautionary principle may sound reassuring, it differs from the traditional way of dealing with risks in industrialized nations. Normally, people are allowed to develop new products and technologies, but they are responsible for any harm done. This approach has made possible centuries of progress.

    The environmental movement is trying to halt this way of dealing with possible dangers. Most international environmental agreements explicitly embrace the precautionary principle, and it increasingly appears in domestic environmental policy discussions. According to the “Wingspread Consensus Statement,” a document drafted by several dozen environmental activists and scholars, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established” (quoted in Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly 1998). Thus, Friends of the Earth president Brent Blackwelder recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune (3 March 1999) that the U.S. government “should take a precautionary approach to genetic engineering.”

    Yet the scientific consensus is that genetically modified crops are no more, and no less, dangerous than those developed by less sophisticated cross-breeding or hybridization techniques. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1987 that there was “no evidence that unique hazards exist” as a result of genetic techniques (National Academy of Sciences 1987, 6). The National Research Council (1989) concluded that “no conceptual distinction exists between genetic modification of plants and microorganisms by classical methods or by molecular techniques that modify DNA and transfer genes.” Britain’s leading scientific journal, Nature (1999, 639), editorialized earlier this year that there is “as yet no substantial evidence that [genetically modified] foods are inherently more dangerous than conventional foods just because they have been produced using novel techniques.”

    The problem is not simply that the precautionary principle is being misapplied to relatively safe products but that the precautionary principle poses problems of its own. For one thing, it is a Luddite’s dream. If inventors and scientists are uncertain whether they can market new products or processes, they are less likely to develop them in the first place. Progress is stifled.

    More broadly, precautionary risk regulation can have the opposite effect of the one intended:

    • The Food and Drug Administration applies the precautionary principle in evaluating new drugs. This keeps lifesaving drugs off the market for years. Yet for victims of life-threatening diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS, few side effects are a greater threat than their own medical condition, which these drugs could address.
    • In the early 1990s, Peru cut the chlorination of its water supply, citing, among other things, an EPA report suggesting that chlorination might increase cancer rates. Yet this risk pales in comparison to the risks posed by waterborne disease. The subsequent outbreak of cholera in Peru claimed far more lives than were ever at risk from chlorine-induced cancer (Anderson 1991).
    • Ethylene dibromide (EDB) is a powerful fungicide used to prevent the growth of molds on grain and other foods. Molds produce some of the most potent carcinogens found in nature. Yet the EPA banned EDB after it was deemed a potential carcinogen. It is likely that the risk of EDB was less than that posed by aflatoxin, a known carcinogen that is produced by grain mold. Moreover, ethylene dibromide was replaced with fungicides that had to be applied in greater quantities, increasing the risk for exposed workers (Cross 1996, 875Ð76).


    The impact of the precautionary principle can be even broader than these specific results. In the case of genetically engineered crops, excessive precaution may slow down increases in agricultural productivity, improvements in nutritional content of foods, and innovations that reduce the use of pesticides.

    It is clear that food production must continue to expand in order to feed the world’s expanding population. If agricultural yields are not improved, meeting the increased demand for food as population grows could require putting up to three billion additional hectares (1.2 billion acres) under the plow (Goklany 1999, 120). If yields are static, farmers in the developing world may well have to clear tropical forests and species habitat to satisfy the demand for food.

    However, increasing agricultural productivity by as little as 1.4 percent per year over the next sixty years would more than double agricultural output. To realize such gains, genetically modified crops are almost certainly necessary. “We may be able to create the new plant type without biotech,” Shaobing Peng of the International Rice Research Institute has commented, “but that is where new opportunities will have to come from in the future” (Mann 1999, 313). Indeed, already yields of pest-resistant corn and cotton are reported to be significantly higher than those of unmodified varieties.

    Like any other new technology, genetically modified crops may pose new risks. But they also hold great potential to improve human well-being and enhance environmental protection.

    The idea behind the precautionary principle is that it is always better to be safe than sorry. In fact, however, adopting the precautionary principle is likely to make us more sorry than safe.

    Anderson, Christopher. 1991. Cholera Epidemic Traced to Risk Miscalculation. Nature 354: 255.
    Cross, Frank B. 1996. Paradoxical Perils of the Precautionary Principle. Washington & Lee Law Review 53: 851Ð925.
    Goklany, Indur. 1999. Meeting Global Food Needs: Environmental Trade-Offs between Increasing Land Conversion and Land Productivity. Technology 6: 107Ð30.
    Mann, Charles C. 1999. Crop Scientists Seek a New Revolution. Science 283: 310Ð14.
    National Academy of Sciences. 1987. Introduction of Recombinant DNA-Engineered Organisms into the Environment: Key Issues. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
    National Research Council. 1989. Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
    Nature. 1999. GM Foods Debate Needs Recipe for Restoring Trust. 398(April 22): 639.
    Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly. 1998. The Precautionary Principle. Bulletin 586. Annapolis, MD: Environmental Research Foundation, February 19.

    Jonathan H. Adler is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He was the 1998 Broadbent Fellow at PERC. This article is adapted from a luncheon talk he gave in Bozeman, Montana, in July 1999.

    Written By
    • Jonathan Adler
      Jonathan Adler
      • Senior Fellow

      PERC Senior Fellow Jonathan Adler is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

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